Common Wisdom: Intimations of Mortality

Biopsy. Cancer. Mastectomy. All clear. Another alarm. CAT scan. All clear. In the short space between New Year’s and the third week in January I careened from each of these startling events to the next. Before the all clear sounded I telescoped into the same window of time all the natural corresponding emotions.

Fear came first—a new kind. This was not fear of the future but fear of having no future at all. How strange it is to think that the calendar may suddenly be useless, that the thousand-and-one plans we make in even a week’s time may cease far before we expected. The only plans we make in such a case are plans to ease the way for those who will be left behind. We have raced through the corridor of life’s history only to face the shock that our history really does end. Where or when it is about to merge with eternity—the eternal present—is not the question we expected to confront today. That, in our view, should be tomorrow’s question.

Nearly always it is tomorrow’s question. Nearly always we do have another day. Nearly always we do have a future. Despite any alarms we may have, only once in our lives—the day of our death—do we let go of the time of our lives that has encompassed our history. Only once in our lives do we relinquish our memory of the past and our hope of the future in order to leap into the Lord’s present.

A comforting thing is the gift of time. A comforting thing, too, is our memory of time, all the signs that we remember who we are as we move through history, making lists and schedules, ticking off tasks, marking baptisms, graduations, weddings, measuring and testing ourselves throughout Church years, school years, fiscal years, calendar years. If these markings of memory, these proofs that we are alive, should suddenly stop, then we face an abyss. What really is over there in that vast eternal present?

I barely faced that question before I knew my health would be restored. Yet in that brief moment of wondering whether time were running out, I learned enough to know that even in fear there is great consolation. Indeed consolation was the dominant theme of my January, a consolation of sweet peace that I do not often experience. Seldom have I been more blessedly aware of the Lord’s presence.

This was a consolation borne of the surprising freedom that comes from glimpsing even a flash of the abyss. If circumstances threaten to prevent us from planning and looking ahead, then we receive the freedom of letting God make the plans. Despite fear, there is some exhilaration in such freedom. Given this consolation, I practiced a virtue—almost for the first time—for which I have utterly no aptitude. I actually placed my life in God’s hands.

His hands, however, turned out to be—as usual in our incarnational world—human hands. I could but marvel at those hands, extensions of the human mind and heart. They flew about, dozens of them, seemingly all for me—the deft hands of my surgeon; the healing hands of nurses; the soothing hands of my daughters and daughter-in-law; the steady hands of my son; the strong hands of my husband; the helpful hands of friends—incredible friends—who rallied round in a sort of encircling wagon train, calling, bringing meals, shopping, writing notes, sending flowers, chopping wood, plowing out our snowbound farm lane.

Most of all these hands folded in prayer, the very reason, without doubt, why I not only experienced such deep consolation but also received an excellent prognosis. Knowing that people are praying for us affords us amazing peace and strength. If people are praying for us, we know it. We do not simply sense it. We know it. And I knew it. As a capstone of that prayer, I received the sacrament of the sick, the rite of anointing with oil and laying on of priestly hands.

There was one more pair of hands—most wondrous of all—a baby’s hands. In the midst of my difficulty, John Paul Burleigh, our first grandchild, was born January 3, weighing in at a hearty 11 pounds 2 ounces. Our son brought John Paul and his mother home to us in a snowstorm.

A baby’s hands are nearly as entrancing as his face. John Paul’s hands, too, rested on me and brought me peace. When the Lord sends human hands to do his work of consoling, he gives most grace to the smallest.


Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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